So Much Business In Education -- And So Little Coverage

Marc Dean Millot, the pro-business, anti-voucher editor of the School Improvement Industry Weekly, wrote me this week with some worthwhile observations about what gets covered -- and missed -- in the MSM and the education blogs alike: examination and understand of the surprisingly large role of private providers and entrepreneurs in the public education enterprise.

He's not just talking about SES and charters, but rather the growing wave of private entrepreneurship and the often unseen and un-noted billions spent on private services.

Yes, there is a school improvement industry (not necessarily a bad word). Yes, it earns billions -- $23 billion of them a year, according to a recent article in Education Week (CEOs, Schools Chiefs Trade Notes on K-12 Business Trends).

According to Millot, formerly at NAS and a researcher at RAND, we are all way behind on this. And I think even a cursory look at the evidence suggests he's right. Why -- and what to do about it -- are harder to figure out. But there are some obvious places to start.


"I wonder when you and other bloggers are going to start treating private sector providers as a part of the k-12 system worthy of attention and analysis," writes Millot. "Whether or not one favors vouchers, charters or contract schools, private firms are steadily becoming deeply embedded in all public schools' core teaching and learning functions."

As a result of this vacuum, says Millot, "the field has been occupied by crazy know-nothing "free marketeers" - who hurt the industry more than help it, and reasonably good researchers on the left-wing who cherry-pick the evidence to make their points. The responsible middle is nowhere to be seen."

I have written occasionally about this little-examined area under the title "The Business of Education," including Between Pencil Purchases and Privatization ... , Tutor-Ama: Vendor Ethics, USDE Bias, Outsourcing, & More, and More than SES providers to consider.

I've also linked to others' posts and articles about the business of education, including Mike Lach's brilliant (and hilarious) Advice For Vendors (Teach And Learn), Contracting out: 10 contracts to know about (Philly Notebook), and to articles about problems in how private efforts are covered in the education press: School Reform As Conflict or Complement (Hechinger Institute). There's a recent NPR story on the struggles the educational software industry is experiencing here: Demand for Educational Software Drops.

Still, I agree that the world of private companies in education doesn't get enough attention outside of the occasional scandal (inside dealing in Baltimore, etc.) and I would love to do more writing about the business of education. Not because it's necessarily good or bad, but because it's real and there and important.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for the lack of balanced, ongoing coverage -- academic and otherwise.

First off, few education reporters know much about the world of commerce; talking to industry analysts about publicly traded companies is foreign to many. It's a whole different language, and sometimes a bit creepy for soft-hearted educators.

Second, the most obvious and immediate aspects of private involvement in education are the car wrecks -- scandals, ethical problems, waste, etc. that take what little attention is given -- but give little understanding of the underlying world of education business.

Last but not least, many journalists share an instinctive and usually unexamined suspiciousness with educators and academics about business -- associating it negatively with privatization of schools, charters, vouchers, and other hot-button issues.

A mitigating factor is that, unfortunately, much of the content that's out there on the issue -- Eduventures, and SIIW -- are on subscription-only sites. (A weekly free SIIW letter from the editor is available on the site, as is a free podcast.) The National Center on the Study of Privatization in Education is an infrequent presence and an academically-oriented outfit. District Administrator covers some of this stuff, but it's not particularly analytic.

Excellent MSM coverage is out there, but not that frequent. Alec MacGillis wrote a great investigative piece for the Baltimore Sun last year (Poor Schools, Rich Targets). The NYT's Jacques Steinberg wrote a great series about the testing industry (Right Answer, Wrong Score: Test Flaws Take Toll ). But that was almost five years ago, and it's not just about testmakers and publishers anymore.

To my mind, there are some obvious ways in which the education business is a compelling topic for coverage, beyond the occasional flareups over charter schools, vouchers, and SES. And there are some good places to start looking for story ideas.

Millot has some of his own ideas: "The real questions for analysts of reform are 1) whether the for profits will be eaten up by publishers or get the capital required to maintain their change-oriented cultures, and 2) whether - if revealed - the new philanthropy's business plans for scale in the nonprofit sector would hold up to serious scrutiny."

Other issues of interest include the conflicts within the industry, which is represented by four different trade groups (NEKIA, EIA, National Council of Education Providers, and CCSI). "Our trade groups are nonentities in the political policy process around Adequate Yearly Progress that literally make the school improvement market," writes Millot. "They lack action plans to cultivate sympathetic journalism, let alone to shelter industry interests in NCLB from the 2006 and 2008 elections."

To get started, check out the contracts approved in nearly every state and local board meeting. That's where lots of the action is.

To get up to speed, consider reading Education Week's Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, who does a decent job of covering the beat, including this recent overview: Business Outlook for Publishers Turns a Page. Another good EW story is this one: Education Entrepreneurs Seen as Facing Uphill Climb in U.S. Schools. It covers a conference that AEI recently held, Educational Entrepreneurship:Why It Matters, What Risks It Poses, and How to Make the Most of It, which includes lots of interesting perspectives.


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